Why Mike Bobo, Bryan Harsin could be the right coaches to develop Bo Nix, Auburn’s quarterbacks

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

There were days early in his career where Hutson Mason would jog off the practice fields at Georgia and think, “Man, this guy doesn’t like me. My coach doesn’t like me.”

That coach was Mike Bobo, now Auburn’s offensive coordinator. It’s his third coaching stop in the SEC, with the bulk of his experience coming during the 14 seasons he spent as the quarterbacks coach (2001-06) and offensive coordinator (2007-14) at his alma mater. And he coached his players hard.

“I never really sugarcoat it – he was very demanding,” Mason said. “It’s about just keeping you hungry and keeping you wanting more and wanting to get better every single day.”

Playing for him was “a great experience,” Mason added. And his methods got results. Mason started only one season for the Bulldogs, completing 67.9% of his passes for 2,168 yards and 21 touchdowns to four interceptions for the SEC’s highest-scoring offense in 2014. His efficiency rating that season (155.7) is higher than any Auburn starting quarterback has posted since Cam Newton’s 2010 Heisman campaign, and he doesn’t even rank among Bobo’s top three pupils in Athens.

David Greene passed for at least 2,500 yards every season from 2001-04. DJ Shockley passed for 2,588 and rushed for 322 in 2005. The Detroit Lions made Matthew Stafford the No. 1 overall pick after he threw for 3,459 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2008. Aaron Murray totaled at least 3,000 yards passing and 24 touchdowns for four consecutive seasons from 2010-13.

That success is a big reason why new coach Bryan Harsin wanted Bobo to be part of his coaching staff at Auburn. Together, they could be the right coaches to elevate the play of returning starter Bo Nix and an Auburn quarterback position that was inconsistent at best during Gus Malzahn’s tenure.

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“I always admired what he had done at Georgia and the things he had done with his quarterbacks and how he had developed those players,” Harsin said. “I think the philosophies that he and I both have at the quarterback position as far as the offensive philosophies, those mesh.”

A strong track record of development

Harsin made it clear that Bobo will call the plays for Auburn’s offense in 2021, but he will be involved. He described his job as head coach as helping design and install “the DNA for who we are" on that side of the ball.

That’s where his background is, too. Both coaches followed similar paths. Bobo played quarterback for Georgia from 1993-97 and Harsin at Boise State from 1995-99. Like Bobo, Harsin has spent more than half of his coaching career at his alma mater.

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He has a strong track record with quarterbacks, too. And not just because of Kellen Moore, who averaged completing 68.2% of his passes for 3,622 yards and 33 touchdowns in three seasons playing for Harsin; or Brett Rypien, who was named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 after completing 67.3% of his passes for 3,705 yards and 30 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

Harsin coached both those players from the starts of their careers with the Broncos. He also inherited two – Jared Zabransky when he was elevated from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2006; and Grant Hedrick when he returned as head coach in 2014 after three seasons away. Both made significant statistical strides playing under Harsin.

Zabransky

  • 2005: 59.1%, 2,562 yards (7.5 YPA), 18 TD, 16 INT
  • 2006: 66.3%, 2,587 yards (9 YPA), 23 TD, 8 INT

Hedrick

  • 2013: 69%, 1,825 yards (7.5 YPA), 16 TD, 5 INT
  • 2014: 70.8%, 3,695 yards (8.9 YPA), 23 TD, 14 INT

“Bryan Harsin is a phenomenal coach,” Moore said.

Attention to fundamentals

Bobo coached Shockley, Stafford, Murray and Mason throughout their college careers. He’s listed as the primary recruiter for Safford and Murray, who were both five-star prospects ranked in the top 20 of their respective recruiting classes.

He has an “infatuation with the mechanics of the position,” Mason said. A day never went by when quarterbacks weren’t talking about footwork or repping it on the field. When Bobo would put on film of Stafford, he told the quarterbacks who came after him to ignore his feet – the 12-year NFL pro has “the 1% arm” that allows him to make practically any throw from any angle. Most quarterbacks don’t.

“You have to rely on your feet, you have to rely on the mechanics of your lower body,” Mason said. “Bobo was always a big believer in that.”

That’s what Nix appears to need. He’s shown flashes of five-star ability through two seasons as Auburn’s starter, but not consistently enough for the Tigers to be better than 15-9. He's a career 58.7% passer averaging fewer than 7 yards per attempt. He’s been plagued by inaccuracy playing behind an offensive line that has often forced him to scramble and make off-balance throws, especially against the SEC’s top defenses.

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But Auburn’s best path to being good immediately under Harsin is Nix being better, especially with no experienced depth behind him. Four-star Dematrius Davis is new to the team and three-star Chayil Garnett didn’t see the field in 2020. Bobo could help Nix get there – not only has he shown that he knows how to coach the position, but he also knows what it’s like to deal with the challenges and pressure that come with being a starting a quarterback at an SEC school.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHARTS:Offense | Defense

Whatever offensive scheme he and Harsin cook up together will likely be much more quarterback-friendly than the previous two Nix has played in, too – Auburn has produced one 3,000-yard passer (Jarrett Stidham) since 1998. Bobo and Harsin have combined to coach eight quarterbacks who totaled 15 such campaigns since 2001.

“If I’m Bo Nix, I’m excited,” Murray said in an interview with WJOX 94.5 in Birmingham. “If this team is going to take the next step, as we’ve seen this year, it starts at the quarterback position. The best teams in the country are the teams with elite quarterbacks that can take over a football game.

“I don’t know how good Bo Nix can be, but I do think there’s more, though. I do think the kid can get better. And you put some really good offensive minds, some really good quarterback minds (around him), I’m hoping that can accelerate his growth.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.